FACULTY SPOTLIGHT: TAKE ONE August 2016- Dr. Okezi Otovo



In this inaugural Faculty Spotlight, we would like to highlight the work of our Brazilianist, who joined the Department of History in 2012: Dr. Okezi Otovo. Her monograph, Progressive Mothers, Better Babies: Race, Public Health, and the State in Brazil, 1850-1945 was recently released by the University of Texas Press. In Progressive Mothers, Otovo explores the cultural discourses of race, gender, and poverty that permeated Brazilian medical knowledge and the public health system for almost a century. To do this, Professor Otovo draws on extensive archival research to reconstruct the implications for the state of Bahia, where family patronage politics governed poor women’s labor as the mothers who were the focus of medical interventions were often the nannies and nursemaids of society’s wealthier families. This book is among few recent studies that simultaneously explore medical ideas, institutions, and personal or community experiences. It is the only work on Brazil to take this approach of analyzing the social and cultural history of clinical institutions and public policy. When asked how she came to this topic Professor Otovo responded:

“I was and continue to be fascinated by the intersections of medicine and society and the ways that thinking about health opens a window into broader social dynamics and change over time. It was also important to me to study and give primacy to the experiences of Afro-Brazilian women who far too often are omitted from social histories or relegated to simplistic, marginal narratives. This approach allowed me to put everyday families at the heart of social change and big historical questions, rather than erroneously on the periphery. This is the first historical study in English of Brazilian family health and welfare policies and the experiences of poor families (especially women and children) with them.”

Her current project reflects this ambitious scholarly trajectory. Otovo continues to research the history of disease and social marginalization in Brazil. Her new research will result in a second book that examines the lived experience of marginalized populations at specific moments in Brazil’s 20th century and seeks to draw larger conclusions about the perpetuation of social inequality over time. She hopes to conduct research in Brazil and at the Rockefeller Archive Center in New York in the near future in order to move this second major monographic project forward. In the meantime, she is conducting an interdisciplinary study of recent Brazilian politics, integrating historical memory of the dictatorship, body theory, and death studies. Her research agenda includes presentations and lectures at conferences both local, national and international – from the Berkshire Conference on the History of Women to the Latin American Studies Association – over the next few years.

When she is not writing and researching, Professor Otovo continues to teach a regular palate of courses in the Department of History. These classes include large lectures on "Latin American Civilizations" as well as more advanced classes on the "Politics of Race and Nation in Brazil;" and "Health, Medicine, and Disease in Latin American Social History”. On the graduate side, Otovo serves as mentor to students interested in Latin American History, Gender and Sexuality, the History of Medicine and Disease, the History of Race in Latin America as well as Historical Methods.

Professor Otovo generously shares her expertise and energy beyond the Department of History, with both the Kimberly Green Latin American and Caribbean Center, where she serves as Director of Academic Programs, and with African and African Diaspora Studies where she sits on the Faculty Steering Committee.